Category Archives: Disciplining the City

Documenting Lynching and its Influence: The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University is Doing Just That

Jay W. Driskell, Ph.D.

In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”

The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.

Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?

I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.


My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.

What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.

Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Underwood and Underwood, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?

Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.

NAACP 1919 announcement
“N.A.A.C.P. Began Anti-Lynching Fight Says Chas Macfarland”, 1919. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.

Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.

With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.

NAACP Nov 14 1919 pg 1 lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 1. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Why is MIT creating this lynching database?

The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.

How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?

When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.

So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.

NAACP pg2 1919lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 2. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.

A tragic and ironic depiction, particularly in light of Dr. Driskell’s early findings,  of the “lynching problem” from 1899; “The Lynching Problem”, Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.

Group of African-Americans, marching near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia“, 1942,  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.

In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.

For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?

So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.

NAACP letter Jan 1938
James Weldon Johnson to Walter White regarding a proposed anti-lynching bill, January 24, 1938, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:

“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”

So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.

May 1941 Marshall to White LBJ
Even LBJ voted against anti-lynching laws (he did so consistently throughout his congressional career), in the third paragraph Marshall offers commentary on the congressman from Texas; Thurgood Marshall to Walter White, May 1, 1941, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?

Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.

But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.

One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.

Jay Driskell is a historian whose work explores the relationship between race, gender and the forging of effective political solidarities in struggles for power within the urbanizing, segregating South. His first book, Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (University Press of Virginia, 2014), traces the changes in black political consciousness that transformed a reactionary politics of respectability into a militant force for change during the fight for black public schools in Atlanta, Georgia.

Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College

The South Isn’t Exceptional, the People Are: New Orleans and Prisoner Rights Activism

Slave prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, Arnold Genthe photographer, between 1920 – 1926, Arnold Genthe Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana more generally, are often held up as the worst examples of policing and criminal justice. It’s where the Angola 3 were incarcerated, alongside Zulu Whitmore, as political prisoners. It’s where Amnesty International has focused much of its anti-carceral state activism. Angola often gets held up as “a modern day slave plantation” and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is constantly in the news, most recently for healthcare-related violations. I’m not arguing that these offenses aren’t bad and that they should go unrecognized. But in many ways, all these statistics and examples from Louisiana perpetuate ideas about the backward South, the eternal other of the great United States. For this reason (and many others) many historians of the carceral state have shifted their focus to incarceration and policing in the North and West (Captive Nation by Dan Berger , Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Kali Gross’s two books on Philadelphia). This is laudable and these stories need to be told. But for those of us who want to write the stories of the South, how do we do this without reinforcing false notions of southern exceptionalism and northern innocence? (This is not to say that people are not successfully doing this: David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery and Robert Parkinson’s Texas Tough). In “Blinded by the Barbaric South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of American Penal Reform” from the edited edition The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Historian Heather Ann Thompson writes “First and foremost, interpretations that emphasize the “exceptional” nature of the southern justice system obscure the extent to which historical penal practices in northern and western states also have been inhumane and deeply racialized. Seeing criminal justice practices in the South as divergent from national standards fundamentally distorts understandings of how race and power played out across the United States after the Civil War.”

African American prisoners at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana ( Leadbelly in foreground); Prisoner with guitar, at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana, Alan Lomax photographer, between 1934 and 1940,  Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of focusing on the many instances of inhumane treatment and abuse in the Louisiana prison system, especially against people of color, I am focusing on prisoner rights activists inside and outside of prison and their creative and intellectual production, their prisoner-rights organizing, and their spaces of activism. I aim to write about anti-carceral activism in New Orleans without furthering mythical notions about the South as “other.” I hope to avoid making New Orleans out to be the bad guy, when in fact the entirety of the United States is the “bad guy” when it comes to incarceration. From Lead Belly’s performances to lawsuits brought by the ACLU to Robert Hillary King’s memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, New Orleanians have fought incarceration in Louisiana. Though I’m writing a story of activism and agency now, I came to this project because I thought Angola was the “worst prison” and, in the way of an immature, budding historian, I thought something was only worth writing about if it was the worst. Tasked with choosing a research paper topic in my first semester of graduate school, I did exactly what I was told not to: I googled it. I landed on the Wikipedia page for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which included a short paragraph on the Angola 3. While oft written about in popular culture, there didn’t seem to be much academically written about these men, locked in solitary confinement in the “worst” prison. I expected to write a tale of gross human rights violations and the aberration of the South. Instead I found a story of strength, activism, art, and love in the face of brutality. A story of friendship and organizing and people fighting for the lives and rights of these men at great personal risk. I wrote my thesis on the Angola 3, but as I traversed archives across Louisiana and conducted oral histories with activists across the country, I decided that I would focus on the uncommon strength and organizing of these men and women instead of dismissing an entire region as backwards.

Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River, La., Detroit Publishing Co., Between 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like many urban historians, sociologists, and other scholars, my focus is on the carceral state. I’m writing about activists, both historical and modern, who have fought for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. In many cases, these activists had little in common beyond the commitment to the rights of the incarcerated. When prisons were being created across the country in the late 19th century, some of these activists fought for the creation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Others belonged to the NAACP and focused on the racial injustice embedded within Louisiana’s jails and prisons. Still more were involved with Black Power, education reform, and anarchist organizing. My project will follow prisoner rights activism in New Orleans from the late 19th century through to modern day organizing.

Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground, Alan Lomax photographer, Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did people of color and other prisoner rights activists use writing, art, and music to express the injustice of the carceral state? How did they carve out spaces, often informal, to fight these injustices politically? These people are exceptional: not because they are Southerners, but because they are fighting, every day, to end incarceration and injustice in Louisiana. By focusing on these activists and their stories, I hope to add nuance to the stories of incarceration in the South. Louisiana has Angola and the OPP, but it also has the longest continuously active chapter of the NAACP, Women with a Vision, NOLA to Angola, and Books to Bars. These organizations, and the activists who make them work remake the story of incarceration in New Orleans every day. It’s a story of injustice, civil rights violations, and abuse, but is also one of art, strength, and organizing.

Holly Genovese is a PhD student and public historian at Temple University interested in Southern history, Intellectual history, Gender, and the Carceral State. She is also a blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History and a contributing editor at Auntie Bellum magazine. You can read her work at and follow her on Twitter @HollyEvanMarie. 

Poisoners, Policemen, and a Scandal in the Court of King Louis XIV: Exploring the Origins of Parisian Policing with Holly Tucker

City of Light, City of Poison_REV_978-0-393-23978-2Although Professor Holly Tucker wrote her new book for a non-academic audience, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris begins with a scene uniquely suited to evoke terror and handwringing from historians. The preface, which Tucker entitles “Burn Notice,” is set in the palace of Versailles in 1709. King Louis XIV and his minister Louis de Pontchartrain stand before the hearth in the counsel room, where “Page by page, Pontchartrain handed … documents to the king, who fed each of them into the hungry flames. The two men watched the parchment curl and catch fire.” The king and Pontchartrain thought they were destroying all evidence of a seventeenth century scandal amongst the nobility, the Affair of the Poisons. “[T]he king silenced the horrors of the affair and the screams of its victims for good,” we read, before Tucker deftly assures us, “Or so he believed.”

Thankfully, the man who uncovered the scandal kept his personal papers separate from the archive of incriminating records that Louis XIV burned. Nicolas de La Reynie, Tucker’s central subject and the chief of police of Paris, was an obsessive note taker and recorder of information—indeed, this attention to detail was what made him so well suited to the job. From these papers and the records of the Bastille prison, Tucker painstakingly revived the characters and events of the Affair of the Poisons. In La Reynie’s investigation, noblewomen, debtors, renegade priests, and discarded mistresses were prime suspects in the epidemic of attempted poisonings so pervasive that not even the king was safe.

The captivating figure of La Reynie not only enlivens the story and creates a natural narrative tension, but he also makes City of Light, City of Poison so essential to historians of the carceral state. More than 160 years before British politician Robert Peel wrote the “Principals of Law Enforcement,” considered by many to be the foundational text of modern policing, La Reynie assembled a network of spies, a bureaucracy of commissioners, and a corps of officers to fight crime in Paris. Resembling a hybrid of municipal police forces and domestic intelligence services like the FBI or the French Gendarmerie, La Reynie and the Paris police defended the monarchy and the French state with the same vigor with which they defended Parisians from crime. I spoke with Holly Tucker about the parallels between pre-enlightenment and modern policing, what historians can learn from the Affair of the Poisons, and how humanities scholars should approach writing for a non-academic audience.

Avigail Oren (AO): City of Light, City of Poison tells the story of Nicolas de La Reynie, appointed lieutenant general of police by King Louis XIV of France in 1667 to clean up the city of Paris and improve public safety. The job seemed to be equal measures Director of Sanitation as Chief of Police. Why were sanitation and public safety so interrelated in seventeenth-century Paris?

Holly Tucker (c) Kimberly Wylie_300dpi
Photograph credit: Kimberly Wylie

Holly Tucker (HT): I think that although Louis XIV made Nicolas de La Reynie police chief, he was also really looking for someone who would serve, in a way, like Mayor of Paris. There had really been no one in Paris looking after the day-to-day aspects of life for Parisians. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was one of Louis XIV’s ministers, the prime interior minister, who was responsible for the construction of some of the eye-popping buildings built in seventeenth-century Paris. In the book I focus a lot on sanitation, but Nicolas de La Reynie was also responsible for responding in times of flooding. The Seine River flooded a lot. La Reynie dealt with the problem of bridges being swept away, and then the attendant problems of transportation. He was also very involved in food provisions, and policed and oversaw Les Halles, which was the main (huge) market for Paris. He looked as well at pricing mechanisms. In all, there was very little about Parisian infrastructure that he did not concern himself with.

AO: Although Nicolas de La Reynie was put in control of Paris in this hybrid role of police chief/mayor/bureaucrat, and he successfully implemented policies to light the city at night and have the streets cleaned by day, from your story it seemed that there were limits to how much control he was able to exert over Parisians. The Montorgueil quarter, for example, was a part of the city where La Reynie struggled to assert control over vice—to such an extent that it became the node, or the point of origin, in the web of events that became the Affair of the Poisons that you so vividly describe in the book. I was wondering if you could tell me what La Reynie would have seen while walking the streets of Montorgueil in the 1670s, in terms of both sights and sensory experiences?

HT: First, it’s really up for debate whether La Reynie physically went into the quarter. There’s some legend that he took a group of officers with him under the cover of night and went into the Court of Miracles [Ed: the name for the headquarters of beggars and organized criminals in Paris]. And that may indeed be apocryphal, but he did have a fair number of spies and other officers who would come into the quarter. But anyone who would have walked into that neighborhood would have seen abject poverty. They would have seen houses that were made out of wood, basically makeshift homes. And then at the same time, there was a major church and a few better-off residences, some homes made of stone—that still actually exist, there are a few seventeenth century homes that are still there. The bulk of the buildings on that street now are mostly eighteenth century residences, but the street grid is still the same. Of course, like the rest of Paris it would have been very dirty, perhaps even dirtier. Keep in mind that it’s just about five to eight minutes walking, assuming no obstacles, from that neighborhood to Les Halles, the main market, which was busy, crazy, stinky, and filled with thieves and prostitutes, and then from there only 10 minutes away from the Louvre, Louis XIV’s Paris Palace. I can walk from Montorgueil to the Louvre in 12 minutes.

AO: So this is really in the King’s backyard.

HT: Yes.

AO: In terms of geographic distance it seems incredibly close, but Montorgueil was in stark opposition to the opulent court of King Louis XIV, where much of the book takes place. Could you describe the Affair of the Poisons and how it demonstrates that the social distance between nobility and poor Parisians was closer than most people would suspect?

HT: Most inhabitants who would have been associated with the court weren’t living in the Louvre. The king himself was rarely at the Louvre. Louis XIV tended to be at a palace called Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the nobility themselves were over in the arrondissement that would have been about 20 minutes away. For as close as it is to many of the major landmarks, physically it would have been unlikely that we would have seen a lot of intersection between these two communities. But the Affair of the Poisons was basically a scandal—a very well known scandal in seventeenth-century history and amongst French historians—in which La Reynie, the police chief, discovered there was this cabal of poisoners, midwives, abortionists, so-called witches, and also renegade priests who were performing services for the nobility. And there was some question over time whether or not the nobility, particularly some of the king’s mistresses, were employing them in order to reach the king—either to have the king fall in love with them or to punish the king. And of course La Reynie wanted to clean up the city of crime, but he also wanted to protect the king to whom he was very, very dedicated. He ended up arresting over 400 people, over 200 people were tried in a secret tribunal, 30 people were executed, and among those many people were tortured. But what it showed was just how permeable the social spaces between the nobility and the lower classes actually were in the seventeenth century.

AO: I was really struck by that while reading the book. It didn’t seem so difficult for these noblewomen, whether they were the lower nobility or a mistress of the king like Athénaïs de Montespan, to seek out and get connected to some of these shadier characters.

HT: A number of people from the lower classes of course worked in the households as servants to these noblewomen. That was one of the “rewards” that could be had, that through these connections that the herbalists and midwives made, they gained an opportunity to place some women from the lower classes into jobs in noble households. And in fact, one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Oeillets, the superstar actress who had been in the court of Montespan, came from Montorgueil. So as much as we’d like to think that these communities were so distinct, both physically in how the city was laid out, and socially, they were not as distinct as we would imagine.

AO: When translated to policing, I imagine that this social interplay lessened the distinction between controller and controlled. That could create confusion: what rules applied to whom, and who had the power to punish and enforce? You write a lot about how La Reynie exerted his control over the lower classes, but the King must have exerted control over the nobility and the members of his court as well. Ostensibly, until the Affair of the Poisons, it was not through the use of the police. Why did Louis XIV decide that a police force was necessary for Paris, but limit its reach into the King’s court?

HT: Actually the monarchy had been in great jeopardy not too long before, between 1648 and 1653 with La Fronde, the civil war. There was an uprising of the noble classes represented through the parliament, which is the main legal body of France. Louis XIV was only 5 years old and his mother, Anne of Austria, was regent. At the heart of the uprising was the very sustainability of the monarchy. Who would control the State? Louis XIV kept in mind throughout his adult years that, if not properly controlled, the nobility could bring about the end of the royal political structures. He also remembered being frightened as a child by death threats during the civil war that lasted five years. That’s also where we begin to see his reluctance to be in Paris. He was taken out of his bed in the Louvre when he was a very, very small boy and then taken to the palace of Saint-Germain, where he was born, and I think that he’d always seen Paris as being this unruly city. To the extent that we can speculate, I think for a while he was willing to let Paris go down its own path, it was just this necessary evil. Then in 1665, when two of the main proactive lawmen of the city—the criminal lieutenant and the civil lieutenant—were both killed, I think Louis XIV realized that by international reputation, Paris was out of control. I think it also was his call to action to make sure that the city did not give him more trouble, personally as monarch, than the nobility did years earlier. That’s why he gave La Reynie such broad powers, because my sense is he really wanted La Reynie to be acting as his physical proxy. La Reynie was very dedicated to the king, but Paris was his kingdom in a way, on behalf of the King.

AO: Although La Reynie was the lieutenant general of police, I was surprised that the force he oversaw did not seem to resemble the modern police departments familiar to most American readers. Most notably, La Reynie used a system of local commissioners to enforce his orders. In what ways did the seventeenth century police force differ from the professionalized police departments that would develop in the nineteenth century?

HT: I think we’re in the mid-range there, because the commissioners were part of the ad-hoc police force. There would be one or two commissioners per quarter responsible for receiving the complaints of the citizens who had already experienced some sort of crime or felt that they had experienced a crime. And La Reynie still engaged those commissioners in that he relied on them to collect the mud taxes, to mobilize their quarter according to his rules to clean and light the streets. But he brought in several hundred, if not up to one thousand, new officers, who were typically on horseback conducting surveillance in the city. He also had the Royal Musketeers as well, whom he would call in from time to time. So I wouldn’t call it the kind of modern police force that we might imagine, but La Reynie was definitely leaning in that direction. He ends up putting this all together in the matter of just a couple of years, which is really quite remarkable.

AO: In addition to these officers and commissioners, La Reynie collected intelligence “from a web of civil servants, lawyers, judges, doctors, and merchants,” and became known for his detailed reports about the goings-on in the city (p. 20). Indeed, King Louis XIV and his ministers came to trust and rely on La Reynie on the basis of the information he was able to collect and provide to them. This complex interrelationship between La Reynie, intelligence, and the state reminded me more of the FBI than a traditional urban police force. What does this early history reveal about how the relationship between national or state and local policing developed?

HT: I’ve also been really fascinated by spies and spying. Because so much of it was under the radar, it’s hard to know with great certainty what was going on. Information could be transmitted via little pieces of paper or parchment, folded and put in buttons that would be covered over in fabric.  It’s only in the 1660s that Louis creates the French postal system, which came primarily out of an interest in wanting to know what was happening and what the citizens were talking about. In the king’s palaces, it has been documented that for letters that were going among the nobility within the palace, to have a centralized postal service the letters would have to go to special room where there would be several people who had all different types of ways of opening the letters. So at the same time that La Reynie is starting his police force, the king has started the postal service—and all of this is for the purpose of spying and keeping an eye on things. In fact I stumbled upon several letters—some are at the University of Pennsylvania actually—letters between La Reynie and Colbert where Colbert was saying, “Hey, I’ve been hearing at court that this person or that person, they’re riding around Paris in these extremely elaborate carriages. Help me figure out what’s going on.” Or, “the king is very unhappy about this, help us stop it.” Another thing that La Reynie did is he made it illegal to gamble in private homes, in favor of requiring people to gamble in public spaces. Why? So he could actually put spies in there to get a sense of who was doing what, what they were talking about, who was losing tons of money and who was gaining tons of money. Now what he did specifically with that information, we can’t be sure, but knowledge gathering during this time period went hand and hand with state building.

AO: I think that comes out really clearly in the book, and raises very interesting questions for historians to think about the carceral state and about state discipline across more levels of policing, from local to national.

HT: Toward the end of the Affair of the Poisons, when it was clear that La Reynie’s investigations were getting closer and closer to some of the people who had direct contact with the king, the fact that Louis XIV, who wanted to know everything about everything, instructed La Reynie to stop the investigation and to put under seal the most incriminating documents—and then, years later, to burn those documents—shows a clear recognition that public knowledge of certain events could be extraordinarily dangerous and powerful. And that means private knowledge can also be equally powerful, if not more powerful.

AO: In the book’s epilogue, you quantify the impact of the Affair of the Poisons. You mentioned some of these numbers already, but 442 people were questioned and 218 were imprisoned—28 of them for life—and 34 were executed for the crimes. It seems from your narrative that justice was not meted out equitably, and that the accused’s class affected the punishment they received, with some very notable exceptions. We see similar patterns of racial and class bias in policing and in the justice system in America today, and I assume in France as well. Yet most histories of the carceral state do not extend back to the seventeenth century. What insight can the Affair of the Poisons, as a lens into early policing, provide to historians interested in the history of policing and incarceration in the 19th and 20th century?

HT: I do think that there’s been, in reception studies, work that has shown both the contributions and also the disservices that Foucauldian approaches to incarceration and policing have given us, and I do think that studies like this help make the thesis much more complicated—in ways that others have also done through the whole debate twenty years ago about Foucault. There is still a lot that we can do to provide welcome nuance. The very fact that you’ve got different prison systems for different groups, the nobility were more likely to be in the Bastille, the lower classes were more likely to be at the Chåtelet. The Conciergerie in Paris were for very high-level cases and were typically tried by the Parliament. But that doesn’t exclude, either, the ecclesiastical courts. So the court and particularly the prison system in early modern France was extraordinarily complicated. And it was complicated both from the legal point of view, of course, but also because of the socioeconomic standing of those on trial.

AO: I wanted to conclude with two questions about writing for a non-academic audience. City of Light, City of Poison is the second book you have published with a trade press. How did you begin writing non-fiction? What are the advantages of publishing with a press like W.W. Norton?

HT: I think that, as humanists, we often do ourselves a disservice by not recognizing that we are storytellers. So I gave myself the freedom to think of myself as an academic-slash-researcher-slash-teacher-slash-storyteller, because that’s what we also do in our classes—for those of us who teach history or cultural studies or literature, we are re-creating something for our students that’s based on scholarship. So when I started thinking about what my next book would be, and this was after tenure, I stumbled on an interesting story. I’d been teaching the history of medicine for a while and I was teaching about William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in 1638 and I really wanted to pep up the lectures somehow. I decided to show some primary documents, so I started going through the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and searching for references to blood. And that’s when I stumbled on these blood transfusion experiments. And the more I looked into them, the more I thought, oh my gosh, this is all about a modern biomedical technology that most people can’t imagine medicine without, and it’s got this fraught history because the first experiments were animal to human. And one of the first blood transfusion patients was actually murdered in the 1670s and the transfusionist was put on trial for what appeared, for all practical purposes, to be one of the first malpractice trials. Blood transfusion was effectively banned after that trial and in the court record it said, “the three doctors responsible for the patient’s death will come to justice shortly.” I read that and thought, “Oh my, what? There’s a cabal of doctors who have done what?” And I discovered that the patient had actually been poisoned. And so when I was thinking about how I wanted to write this—this was going to be my promotion book—the story was so rich and the characters were so amazing and the implications were huge because, underlying the murder was this concern that if animals were being transfused to humans there could be a real possibility of creating chimeras.

AO: I mean, clearly.

HT: Right? So I decided that I didn’t want to write for a small handful of people. So whether or not I was going to get promoted, it didn’t matter, and so I did my research to figure out how one goes about publishing for a larger audience and so I pitched agents. Then I picked an agent who worked really well with me and then she pitched it to different publishers and actually we had a number of publishers interested in it. And so that’s why, it was an amazing story. The challenge was trying to figure out, so what does this mean? Because I was used to writing academically, and it’s a completely different experience to write for a larger audience than it is for an audience of one’s peers. And I will say these last two books that I’ve written have been the hardest intellectual research experiences that I’ve ever had. You really have to get into cultural documents to find ways to bring readers into that period. So it’s not just about the ideas, it’s not just about the events that occurred, it’s about providing an accurate as possible snapshot of the time period so that readers can live the experience. It’s really hard to do that.

AO: How would you recommend scholars who have an idea for a non-fiction project begin to pursue non-fiction writing? How should they go about acquiring an agent or a publisher?

HT: I think the advantage we have as scholars is that we know how to ask questions and we know how to get information, and so when I had this idea I just started Googling. And then also, as far as writing style, I read books targeted to larger audiences that I really appreciated for the scholarship, like those by Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky, Stephen Greenblatt, and a book I really enjoyed called The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so I got that book. I got Seabiscuit. We, as researchers in the humanities, we’re used to looking at texts carefully, digging through and looking at narrative structure, not just what’s being said but how it’s being said. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit! If there was one good book I’d tell everyone to start with, it’s Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor. It’s a little bit older but I just looked at it again not too long ago and it gives extraordinarily good advice about how to know whether your idea is appropriate for an audience, and how to go pitching that, and what agents and editors are looking for, and how one goes about putting together a book proposal that is targeted for larger presses.

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here. Holly Tucker is a Professor of French at Vanderbilt University and also holds an appointment in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society in the School of Medicine. Tucker is also the author of Blood Work:  A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution and Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth & the Fairy Tale in Early-Modern France.

Disciplining the City: Policing and Incarceration in Urban Space

Photographed by Tiziana Matarazzo

The Metropole is excited to debut a new series on urban policing, edited by Matthew Guariglia, a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut.

“The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.” With this statement, British politician Robert Peel began his “Principals of Law Enforcement,” often considered the foundational text of modern policing. The nine points, published in 1829, create the framework for a system of coercive governance that relied on “persuasion, advice, and warning,” and sometimes the state’s monopoly on violence, to protect the developing liberal capitalist state. “The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public,” Peel writes, “that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.”[1] In a society that declared civil liberties sacred, police were to be a constant reminder of what the consequences could be when an individual failed to maintain “public respect.”

[Squad of Chicago Mounted Police], Geo. R. Lawrence Co., 1907, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The history of urban policing, however, is plagued by a continuity of brutality. The recent highly publicized killings of urban residents of color by police and the international Movement for Black Lives that arose in response have made more people around the world aware of a problem many people of color have always known. Almost as quickly as Peel wrote that police should operate by “offering individual service and friendship to all members of society without regard to their race or social standing,” police across the Atlantic world and its colonies were deployed to create and enforce legal and extralegal regimes of control in the name of public safety and with the full support of less vulnerable members of society.

This continuity also obscures a long history of change and experimentation as police departments across the world developed and shared new tactics to control urban spaces and new rationales to justify that control. Technology changed, the racial and gendered makeup of police departments became more diverse, crimes were invented or disappeared from enforcement, and a fearful public continually renegotiated its relationship to policing in exchange for the promise of protection and safe streets. “The institution of the police,” said Michel Foucault, “which is so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by that fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have the exclusive right to carry arms, who demand our papers, who come to prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals?”[2]

[Detroit, Michigan. Police officers removing sit down strikers from Yale and Towne manufacturing plant], March 1937, Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Disciplining the City: Policing and Incarceration in Urban Space is open to historians from all fields and time periods, and will explore the multifaceted and complex history of policing, crime, and incarceration in urban and suburban spaces. We are soliciting submissions to the series concerned with a number of topics, including: analysis of both change over time and continuity in the history of policing; the relationship between policing and racial and gender formation and sexuality; the classed, ethnic, racial, and gendered make up of the police force; policing as labor; the act and challenges of policing specific spaces and populations within the urban landscape; the technology and material culture of policing; urban incarceration; medicine and criminality; crime and the law; methods of preserving law and order in slave and colonial regimes; activism, police reform, and prison abolition; and, finally, the history of policing cities through an international or global lens.

[Mexico City, Mounted Police], Harris and Ewing, 1913, Harris & Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress
Studying the history of policing in urban spaces is a complicated endeavour filled with ambiguous and often purposely-obscured archives. The series is therefore interested not just in publishing original research, but also posts that involve archive stories and close readings of specific primary sources central to one’s research. Historiographies and bibliographies of topics related to the history of policing, crime, and incarceration, book reviews, and author interviews are also encouraged in order to help readers follow the emerging field of carceral studies.

Submissions should follow The Metropole’s submission guidelines and should be sent to Matthew Guariglia.

[1] Emphasis in the original

[2] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977, New York: Vintage Books, 1980, 47.